Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It's clear -- Tomlin has mishandled Steelers QBs

Tuesday, August 31, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich is most likely to start Sept. 12, but Ben Roethlisberger is most ready to take the field -- even though his NFL suspension won't make that possible.



Steelers coach Mike Tomlin likes to use fancy words. This summer, "clarity" has been a popular choice for him, as in, "We're striving to find clarity with our quarterback position." There's only one problem. Tomlin doesn't appear to understand what the word means.

"We still don't know who's going to be our starting quarterback," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said Sunday night.

Nor do the rest of us.

There's only one fancy word that applies here: Ambiguity.

Shame on Tomlin. The way he handled his quarterbacks Sunday night against the Denver Broncos added to the confusion. He started Ben Roethlisberger and played him for a quarter even though he will miss at least the first four regular-season games because of his NFL-mandated suspension. He traded a seventh-round draft pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April for Byron Leftwich and gave him a one-year contract extension through 2011 with the intent of Leftwich being the starter in Roethlisberger's absence. Yet, he didn't play him against the Broncos until the third quarter and then with the second- and third-stringers, who were overrun by Broncos pass rushers and nearly got Leftwich killed. He gave Dennis Dixon way too many snaps with the first team even though he wouldn't have traded for Leftwich if he had any faith that Dixon could be the replacement starter for Roethlisberger.

Clarity?

What clarity?

Roethlisberger shouldn't have played against the Broncos. The snaps he took in that game don't figure to help him much when he comes back from his suspension, presumably for the home game against the Cleveland Browns Oct. 17. He's a franchise quarterback -- a two-time Super Bowl winner -- and is well on his way to being one of the best in NFL history. He had a marvelous training camp and looked good in the two exhibition games in which he played. He should be just fine after getting two weeks of practice before the game against the Browns.

Leftwich should have started and played the first half against the Broncos. He needed the work. He played just four series in the first exhibition game against the Detroit Lions, then three in the second game against the New York Giants. Putting him in with the reserves in the second half in Denver did nothing to get him ready for the opening game against the Atlanta Falcons Sept. 12. He's lucky he wasn't injured. He took a frightful beating behind that second-team line. At least Tomlin did something right that night, getting Leftwich out of the game fairly quickly. Give him credit for that.

Dixon showed against the Broncos that he's not quite ready to be the Steelers' starter. "He didn't play well," Tomlin conceded after Dixon was intercepted twice, one in the Broncos' end zone, the other returned 77 yards for a touchdown. It's OK to put in a package of plays for Dixon to take advantage of his mobility and use him as a change-of-pace quarterback in the first four games. But he can't be the man.

That has to be Leftwich. His experience will be more important to the Steelers in those first four games than Dixon's potential. He doesn't have to win the games, just not lose them. He is far less likely to make the big mistakes than Dixon.

It's a shame that Tomlin didn't do a better job of getting Leftwich ready.

It's too late now to worry about it. The first-stringers aren't expected to play much in the final exhibition game against the Carolina Panthers Thursday night at Heinz Field. Although Tomlin didn't reveal his plans for his quarterbacks when he met with the media Monday, there have been reports that Roethlisberger will start, presumably to get his first appearance in front of the home crowd since his night in Milledgeville, Ga., out of the way and to show everyone, at least symbolically, that he's still the Steelers' guy. That won't leave much time for Leftwich to play with the first team. A good guess is he hardly will play at all -- better, at this point, to keep him healthy for the Falcons.

Good luck to Leftwich being sharp in that opening game.

Blame Roethlisberger for this mess. That's fair. He put the Steelers in a terrible hole by getting himself in the jackpot in that college bar in Georgia.

But blame Tomlin, as well. So far, his search for quarterback clarity has failed miserably.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10243/1083873-87.stm#ixzz0yBThNWXw

Pirates' epic plunge continues with 14-2 loss

With terrible pitching, hitting, defense, is this their worst team ever?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1


Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

The Pirates' Paul Maholm wipes his face while pitching in the second inning of the 14-2 loss Monday at Wrigley Field.


CHICAGO -- These Pirates are on a course to prove conclusively that they, and not some predecessors, are the worst team in the franchise's 124 years.

Bar none.

There is the terrible starting pitching, the latest being Paul Maholm's eight runs on nine hits, a walk and a hit batsman over 3 1/3 innings in a red-faced 14-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs Monday night at Wrigley Field. That, amazingly, was the exact same pitching line Charlie Morton had Sunday in Milwaukee.

"Just frustrating," Maholm said.

There is the terrible hitting, too, the latest being a six-hit output and the standard two runs, most of the offense coming after the Cubs had put up two touchdowns.

There is the terrible defense, the latest being more of the circuitous outfield routes, missed cutoff men, errant throws and a muffed popup, all of which raised audible laughter from the 29,538 on hand.

There is the terrible baserunning, the latest being Andrew McCutchen anchoring himself to first base through two batters, 14 pitches and 11 minutes during the first inning when a steal would have resulted in a run.

There is the terrible lack of accountability, with no significant, visible action by manager John Russell beyond some daily meetings of late, and not one member of the baseball operations staff accompanying the team on this six-game road trip. General manager Neal Huntington has been scouting the minor-league affiliates.

At the end, of course, there is the terrible record of 43-88, on pace for 53-109.

And, with all due respect to the infamous 1890 Pittsburg Alleghenys who went 23-113 when they were not toiling in the mills and mines, as well as the 1952 "Rickey Dinks" who went 42-112, the current Pirates are operating in a sporting atmosphere where such anomalies are increasingly rare. In Major League Baseball, no team has lost more than 106 since the 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks went 51-111.

If this is not the Pirates' worst team in that context, then good luck to the historian wishing to prove otherwise.

Russell was asked after this one, how difficult the losing has become, in general.

"Well, you come in and want to get off to a good start in the series," he replied. "We were working Carlos Zambrano's pitch count up pretty good and, next thing you know, they score seven runs ... it deflates itself. It's tough. But the guys kept playing hard. We've just got to put this behind us and come back tomorrow."

Second baseman Neil Walker, one of no more than a handful of bright spots all summer, was asked the same question.

"It's very difficult. It really is," he said. "There's a lot you have to swallow as a competitor. You have to understand that this is a process. For a lot of us, this is our first go-round in the big leagues. The competitor in you wants to win every night, but ... we've just been on the butt-end of some stuff."

This butt-end came from the Cubs, against whom the Pirates had been 9-3 to account for 21 percent of all their victories.

Maholm had nothing from the warmups onward, giving up five doubles among his nine hits.

"He didn't throw very well," Russell said. "It's hard to pinpoint one thing. He just wasn't able to really execute his pitches. Tough night."

There have been a few of those for Maholm, maddeningly inconsistent in going 7-13. Five times, he has given up seven or more runs.

"It's not throwing my sinker like I can," Maholm said. "Instead of establishing down and away, I'm missing over the middle and getting into bad counts. I know what it is, and it's going to be fixed. This is the most frustrating thing, to have two good ones and then these games come around."

The bleeding remained profuse.

Sean Gallagher gave up a run, Brian Burres five more, as Chicago sent 11 men to the plate in the fourth, nine more in the fifth, for 11 runs in those two innings. In all, the Cubs pounded out 18 hits, half of them doubles, as well as a two-run home run by the pitcher Zambrano.

It marked the 11th time an opponent scored into double-digits, and the only scores more lopsided were the 20-0 and 17-3 losses to the Milwaukee Brewers.

These are the kinds of games, and this is the kind of season, that gets people fired. Usually a lot of people. Although indications have been strong that neither Russell nor Huntington would be fired during the season, team president Frank Coonelly said two weeks ago that "nobody's job is absolutely safe," and described the team's showing as "an embarrassment."

Maholm, one of the team leaders, was asked if the players were thinking about possible firings.

"You can't do that. You can't be out there thinking about that," he said. "And they're not the ones throwing the pitches. Our job is to go out there and win the games, to do what we're supposed to do."


The Pirates have lost four in a row, all on this trip, extending their road losing streak to 14. If that seems like a lot consider that there was a 17-game losing streak that spanned May and June. Since the beginning of that 17-gamer, they have won just four of their past 42 road games.

That is half of the 2010 road schedule.

One other thing: The Pirates were formally eliminated from the playoffs.

Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com.


Read more:
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10243/1083919-63.stm#ixzz0yBSzfETM

Monday, August 30, 2010

NFL losing its mind

By Joe Starkey, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Sunday, August 29, 2010

This is insane.

It's downright scandalous, actually, for the NFL to be peddling an expanded regular season even as evidence mounts of football-related collisions causing long-term brain damage.

There should be talk of shrinking the already ruthless 16-game season, not piling on. But here we are, fresh out of the owners meetings in Atlanta, staring at the possibility of 18 games in 2012.

A number of recent events have cast more focus on the subject of concussions among NFL players. Pittsburgh Steeler offensive linemen Justin Strzelczyk, left, and Terry Long, right, died after long bouts of depression that may be tied to concussions. New England Patriot linebacker Ted Johnson said he suffers from depressions tied to repeated head-on contact.
(Getty Images)


NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would like you to believe this is about entertaining the fans.

It's not about money. Noooooo. It has nothing to do with owners lining their pockets by exchanging two financially paltry exhibition games for two lucrative regular-season ones.

The owners are doing us a favor!

"There's tremendous support for it," Goodell told reporters after the meetings. "Almost all the questions, all the discussions, are how to do it in a way that's fan friendly."

Shouldn't all the discussions be about how to "do it" in a way that's player friendly? The players are the ones sacrificing their bodies for our viewing pleasure. They are compensated generously, to be sure, but that doesn't mean putting them through two more days of car-wreck collisions is the right thing to do.

The players see through the owners' ruse. Even increased pay won't make this idea fly among the rank and file.

"Not at all," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "If you follow the money trail, you see it's all about greed."

Added Steelers player rep Charlie Batch: "For (owners) on one side to say concussions are a point of emphasis and then turn around and add two more games just doesn't make sense. It's a bad idea."

DeMaurice Smith, union chief, responded this way to my e-mail request seeking comment:

"There has been no full proposal (from the league) regarding lowering thresholds for post-career health care, changes in offseason conditioning, bye weeks, roster sizes, impact on careers, impact on games, cumulative injury rates and a host of other issues," Smith wrote. "The players know it is difficult to get through the current season, and that this proposal has a lot of pieces that need to be addressed.

"It will be a tough sell in the locker rooms, but I think it is important to address these issues quickly."

Don't even negotiate on this one, Mr. Smith. The season is too long already. No amount of bye weeks or reduction of offseason conditioning can make up for subjecting players to two more games.

Steelers president Art Rooney II declined comment on the issue, but be sure of this: If any franchise should be vigorously protesting an expanded season, it's the Steelers, who have seen several former players — Mike Webster, Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk, Paul Martha, to name four — lose their quality of life on account of brain damage. Their two best current players, Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu, have sustained multiple concussions.

The question of whether football-related collisions cause dementia, depression and worse remains disputed in the medical community, though evidence is increasing. At the very least, the NFL should refrain from adding more games until it sees more research. And it has to consider the stunning scientific studies already performed.

One of those, conducted by the West Virginia University-affiliated Brain Injury Research Institute, determined that deceased Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry had a form of degenerative brain damage caused by multiple hits to the head. Henry was one of more than a dozen NFL and college players found with the condition.

Then there is the heartbreaking story of longtime NFL fullback Steve Smith, captain of Penn State's 1986 national championship team, as told on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel."

Smith, who turns 46 on Monday, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) in 2002. He is tethered to a ventilator, bed-ridden and unable to speak. He also is one of 14 ex-NFL players to have developed ALS, or a condition that directly mimics it.

That is an outrageous number, considering only one in 100,000 among the general population will develop the disease.

The theory is that toxic proteins created by head trauma leak from the brain into the spinal cord, causing the condition. That is the finding of Dr. Ann McKee, a neurology professor at Boston University who has studied the brain and spinal cord of two NFL players (Wally Hilgenberg, Eric Scoggins) who died from ALS.

Steve Smith's mind remains clear. He speaks by directing his eyes to computer keys on a video screen. At one point in the interview, he burst into tears.

Somebody should see to it that the scene is played at the next NFL owners' meeting.

"I have hit people 40 to 50 times every week in practice, not to mention 50 to 70 times on gameday 16 days a year, not to mention camp every year," Smith said through a computer-generated voice. "When is enough enough? You have the old-school owners that say, 'That's how you make them tough.' I'd love to see them get out there and hit heads with guys that are bigger than them."

Enough's enough, gentlemen.

Stop the insanity.

Maz's room: Retired teacher has turned an unused bedroom into a shrine to a moment -- and a man

Saturday, August 28, 2010
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/



Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Over the years, Chuck Bogorae, 60, of Brownsville, collected memorabilia that Mazeroski had autographed -- more than 250 items in all.


In an unused bedroom that has been transformed into a sanctuary, time stands still.

Taking up one entire wall is an image taken on Oct. 13, 1960. The Forbes Field scoreboard displays the numbers of a deadlocked game in the bottom of the ninth inning, with its Longines clock frozen at 3:36 p.m.

Bill Mazeroski follows through on his swing, and a baseball is suspended in flight toward the 406-foot mark in left center field.

That iconic image is autographed by the man at the plate who lifted the Pirates and their followers to such heights that the moment is still talked about 50 years later. But also carrying his signature are various jerseys, bats, balls, a second base bag, photographs, commemorative plates, posters, books, bobbleheads and memorabilia of every stripe adorning the other three walls.

"I would probably need a fire hall to display all the stuff that I've had signed by Maz over the years," said Chuck Bogorae, 60, a retired teacher from Brownsville, Fayette County, who nurtures his lifelong love for baseball by collecting souvenirs honoring a man and a moment.

"We're just a Maz household here."

To underscore the point, Joanne Bogorae, his wife and high school sweetheart, noted that they once had a Chihuahua named Maz. And their new dog, also a Chihuahua, is a female named Mazzie Mae.

They never planned to dedicate a room to a Hall of Fame baseball player who has a street named for him outside PNC Park, where his statue will be dedicated on Sept. 5. It just kind of evolved after Mr. Bogorae, a lifelong Pirates fan, started collecting memorabilia about 25 years ago.

The items weren't even exhibited until about eight years ago when the couple's son, Michael, moved out of his room and left for college. The second-floor bedroom evolved into something more than just a place to display things. It became almost a shrine to a coal miner's son who grew up in the community of Pike Mine, Ohio.

"My mother was a big baseball fan. She'd listen to Rosey Rowswell broadcast the Pirate games on the radio. That's where I got my love for the game," Mr. Bogorae said.

The day the Pirates defeated the Yankees in seven games for their first World Series win in 35 years, there was lots of excitement in the Bogorae household over Maz's home run.

"I was in grade school, so it didn't sink in right away. My mom had lived through the losing seasons, so when the Pirates finally won, she was flying high. It was like we hit the lottery that day," he said.

"To win that game with the type of home run that had never been hit before and has never been hit since makes it that much more special."

Like most kids, Mr. Bogorae collected baseball cards. Nobody had an inkling that those cards would be worth a lot of money some day, and his collection was discarded. About 25 years ago, he thought about collecting cards again, but there were too many brands on the market. He decided, instead, to gather autographs, beginning with that of former Pirates pitcher Bob Veale.

Then he started collecting photographs with the autographs, concentrating on players from the championship teams of 1960, 1971 and 1979. Along the way, he happened to get Mr. Mazeroski to sign an item. And before long, he picked up more and more things related to the second baseman who never played for anyone but the Pirates in his 17-year career and who was a seven-time All-Star and the winner of eight Gold Gloves.

"I found who I wanted to get behind," said Mr. Bogorae. "I could always relate to Maz. He was what I thought a ballplayer should be. If you wanted someone to look up to, he was a guy you could cheer for.

"His dad was a coal miner, and so was mine. He did everything we did as kids. He tossed rocks into the air and hit them with a broomstick handle. We were taught to play the game the way he played it, to win with class and lose with dignity. He was so down to earth, so humble, so soft-spoken. He was a man of few words, but a genuine, honest person. He was one of us."

Mr. Bogorae would buy a jersey here or a bat there. Anything that had something to do with Mr. Mazeroski was added to the collection, including a poster of Maz when he played minor league ball for the Hollywood Stars. He also found a picture of Maz's first glove, an Early Wynn model that he purchased with money he earned digging the hole for an outhouse for his Uncle Ogden.

On the Internet, he found old photographs from the archives of United Press International. One shows Maz with his mother serving a turkey dinner. Another shows Maz and his wife, Milene, at the birth of their first child.

Then Mr. Bogorae would get each item personalized.

"Any time Maz was signing autographs at a memorabilia show, I'd go see him. Sometimes, I'd have 10 or 12 items that I wanted him to sign," he said.

As a fan, Mr. Bogorae wrote letters to the Veterans Committee in support of Mr. Mazeroski's candidacy for the Hall of Fame. He saved the letters and responses he got from the late Ted Williams. And when the induction was finally approved in 2001, Mr. Bogorae and his wife drove to Cooperstown, N.Y., to hear the most unusual acceptance speech in Hall of Fame history.

Mr. Mazeroski got about three minutes into his talk before he was overcome with emotion and couldn't continue through the sobs.

"That was Maz. Everybody knew he wasn't going to be able to finish. He had Hall of Famers crying. It was the perfect speech," Mr. Bogorae said. "To him, hitting that home run was like catching a big fish, and he feels that people are still making too much of it. I don't know if he realizes how many hearts he touched."

Mr. Bogorae will be at the dedication of the Mazeroski statue, which is being erected at the end of Mazeroski Way. He also plans to attend the Oct. 13 replay of the Game 7 broadcast as fans gather at the last remaining portion of the Forbes Field wall in Oakland.

He doesn't claim to have the largest Mazeroski collection or to be the only fan collecting stuff.

"I'm sure there are other people who are just as crazy as I am," Mr. Bogorae said. "This room is a shrine to Maz, but it's also a good place to spend some quiet time, to watch the Pirate games on TV or just to sit and relax."

Mr. Bogorae has no idea of the monetary value of the items in the room.

"I don't know what it's worth," he said. "I'll never sell any of it. I'm not in it for that."

Interactive Panoramic Photo:
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10240/1082314-429.stm

Robert Dvorchak: bdvorchak@post-gazette.com.

Read more:
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10240/1083186-30.stm#ixzz0y5JoY0RI

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hits keep coming for Sepulveda

Thursday, August 26, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/

As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, there had been 878,045 hits on the YouTube video of Baylor punter Daniel Sepulveda knocking North Texas return man Johnny Quinn into next week during a game in 2004.

I'm guessing Steelers safety Troy Polamalu accounted for No. 878,045.

"I'll have to go home and check it out," Polamalu said after practice earlier Wednesday. "Is it really that good?"

It's awesome, actually.

Check it out. I swear Sepulveda -- now the Steelers' punter -- will remind you of Polamalu. He raced down the field and -- like a blur -- launched his body into Quinn, knocking him backward.

"That was fun," Sepulveda said, grinning.

That's also why no one with the Steelers was surprised when Sepulveda made one of the signature plays in their 24-17 exhibition win against the New York Giants Saturday night. All that stood between Giants punt returner Aaron Ross and the end zone was Sepulveda. Worse, Ross had a lead blocker -- cornerback Courtney Brown -- looking to hurt someone.

"I'm on the field thinking, 'This really isn't good,' " Sepulveda said.

But darned if Sepulveda didn't fight off Brown to hurl Ross out of bounds. Forget for a moment that it came after a 45-yard return, which means the Steelers still haven't solved all of their special teams issues from last season. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin thought enough of Sepulveda's touchdown-saving effort that he picked it as one of the 15 or 20 key plays he showed to the entire team Monday.

"I could sense the respect level of all the guys going up," Sepulveda said.

Most players don't consider a punter or a kicker to be one of them. They disdainfully refer to one as "just a punter" or "just a kicker."

Not Sepulveda.

"He's an athlete," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said.

There's plenty of tape to prove it, not just on YouTube but at the team's South Side headquarters. Twice last season, Sepulveda tackled Cleveland Browns return terror Joshua Cribbs to save touchdowns. As a rookie in '07, he also saved a touchdown by hauling down Seattle Seahawks returner Nate Burleson.

"Plays like that can be the difference between making the playoffs and missing the playoffs," Polamalu said.

"[Sepulveda] relishes those opportunities, probably a little too much for my liking," Tomlin said.

Certainly, Sepulveda gives the Steelers something that most teams don't have. Remember the heat that kicker Jeff Reed took last season when he failed to tackle the Cincinnati Bengals' Bernard Scott on a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown? There's probably not another kicker in the NFL who would have stopped Scott. But Sepulveda? I'm thinking he would have crunched him.

"It's hard for me to enjoy those plays in the moment because, when they happen, they're negative plays for the team," Sepulveda said. "But I do like the action."

So much that Sepulveda nearly gave up punting at Baylor after his redshirt freshman season. He walked on as a linebacker because his brother, Stephen, was a three-year starter at middle linebacker there. But after being the Bears' special teams MVP as their punter in '03 and earning a scholarship, he asked the coaches if he could play strong safety or outside linebacker.

"I didn't like punting," Sepulveda said. "The football I grew up playing was a physical game and an emotional game. Punting isn't physical. Punting isn't emotional. It's a totally different animal. It's a lot more like golf."

Fortunately for Sepulveda -- not to mention the Steelers -- Baylor specials-teams coach Mark Nelson was a voice of reason.

"He showed me the stats and pointed out how much better the team was with me punting," Sepulveda said. "He told me I was being selfish."

Three college seasons and two Ray Guy Awards as the nation's top punter later, Sepulveda was picked by the Steelers in the fourth round of the '07 NFL draft. He will make $1.1 million this season. Punting is a lot more fun these days.

Now, the Steelers are looking to give Sepulveda more work as their kickoff specialist. They love Reed as their field-goal kicker because he's just about the best in the business, but they weren't thrilled with his short kickoffs last season. Doing it for the first time under stadium lights against the Giants, Sepulveda's kicks went to the New York 5, 13 (after a 5-yard penalty), 11, 1-yard deep in the end zone and 4. "I know I can do better," he said.

"I thought he did a great job and I want to give him another opportunity [against the Denver Broncos Sunday night]," Tomlin said.

You might think this makes for awkward moments between Sepulveda and Reed, but Sepulveda said that isn't so. They are good friends. Sepulveda holds for Reed's field goals and extra points.

"He's been very supportive of me," Sepulveda said. "He's been helping me. It's not like he's keeping any secrets from me. But ... "

You knew there was going to be a "but," right?

"He's a competitor, too," Sepulveda said. "He wants to be the guy."

If nothing else, Sepulveda will push Reed to be better. And if he happens to win the kicking job? The Steelers' coverage team can't help but be better. It will have 11 great athletes instead of 10.


Link: "Daniel Sepulveda Destroys Punt Returner"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FhCgLeuO0I

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

For Cowher, Coaching Was Never the Priority

By RICHARD SANDOMIR
The New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com
August 24, 2010

For more than three years, Bill Cowher has resisted the impulse to return to the sideline. He had not lost his fire so much as he had started a new life that did not make finding the next coaching job an urgent priority.

Cowher, a former Pittsburgh Steelers coach, and his wife, Kaye, moved to Raleigh, N.C., during his final season with the Steelers in 2006 and watched their three daughters grow up. Cowher became a studio analyst for CBS Sports and took piano lessons.

But in February of this year, Kaye Cowher received a diagnosis of melanoma. Late last month, she died, at 54

“It was a quick and unfortunate downward spiral in five months’ time,” he said Tuesday at CBS’s Midtown headquarters. “They went in to remove what they thought was a muscle mass and after doing a needle biopsy, they found the melanoma and couldn’t really find a treatment to cure it.”

They met in 1976 after one of his football games at North Carolina State. She was a senior on the basketball team with her twin, Faye. He was a linebacker in his junior year. The sisters then played for the New York Stars and the New Jersey Gems of the Women’s Professional Basketball League.

He played for the Cleveland Browns and the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Cowhers married in 1983. During his coaching years, Cowher said, his wife “was mother and father during the football season.”

He added, “The one thing that she always gave me was stability at home.”

The speed with which Kaye Cowher died suggests the brutal seriousness of melanoma, especially when it is advanced. Dr. Martin Weinstock, a professor of dermatology and community health at Brown University, said that 70,000 new cases of melanoma were diagnosed each year in the United States and that 9,000 people died from the disease.

“It’s very serious, and unlike most forms of cancer, it’s increasing,” he said, citing exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun and tanning booths as the culprits for most cases. He added: “Most people who get melanoma don’t die. Most are cured. But of those who die, it’s usually more than five months after diagnosis.”

Cowher said that the pace of his wife’s illness was “a tough process.” Standing in a crowded conference room during CBS’s preseason media day, he said: “The medications she went through; the trial she tried, it really exasperated her. She had some moments of clarity in subsequent times. It was a very tough thing to go through and to watch.”

He added, “Cancer, very particularly melanoma, once it gets into your blood, it’s a difficult cancer to stop.”

He said all of this matter-of-factly, the familiar chin barely hidden behind the thin growth of his beard.

“Adversity comes in life,” he said. “I lost my father in April, but he was 87 and he lived a good life. You want to appreciate the memories and I don’t have any regrets. We did everything. The girls sacrificed things. When you have cancer and you have some time, you have a chance to say and do things, as opposed to when somebody passes away suddenly. We were able to cherish the special moments at the end.”

Now, he said, “We have to move on.”

The next step might be coaching but he is not in a rush. He enjoys the CBS job and has done well at it. “If the right situation occurred, I’d consider coaching,” he said. “But everyone asks, ‘What’s the right situation?’ I don’t know. I’m not sitting and looking at any one job.”

One thing he would not do if he returned is let HBO and NFL Films produce “Hard Knocks” at his training camp. He said he rejected their offer to follow him and the Steelers a few years ago. He said that he did not think the format was the best way to present football.

“It should be understood that there’s a responsibility to promote the game in a good light, but behind the scenes, tough things are said and tough decisions are made,” he said. “It’s important to promote the game the best way you can with the understanding that a lot of people are watching.”

He didn’t criticize Jets Coach Rex Ryan’s cursing on the current edition of “Hard Knocks,” as the former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy has.

Cowher, who publicly fulminated (with expectorant) when he was the Steelers coach, recognizes that emotion makes coaches and players say things that are not for all ears.

“If you’re going to be seen by a national audience,” he said, “respect the game, respect the league, respect the people who are watching. There’s a responsibility to acting like a role model.”

One story about Kaye Cowher, which was related in her obituary in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, may color Cowher’s knock on “Hard Knocks.” A neighbor said that “Kaye let him have it” after she read curses on his lips during a Steelers game. The neighbor said that Cowher was told by his wife, “You’ve got three daughters, and you need to be an example to them and the community.” After that, the neighbor said, “he had to shape up.”

Cowher: Roethlisberger finally showing maturity

By RACHEL COHEN, AP Sports Writer
http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl
August 24, 2010

NEW YORK (AP)—Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher says it was hard to get through to Ben Roethlisberger(notes) after the quarterback had so much success early in his career.

Yet Cowher believes the sexual assault investigation that led to a six-game suspension for Roethlisberger was a “slap in the face” that has led to some much-needed maturity.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Cowher described how Roethlisberger used to respond to advice about his off-field behavior. “‘But we’re winning games. We’re winning championships,”’ Cowher recounted. “‘What do you mean? Isn’t that what we’re here to do?”’

“Yeah,” Cowher said, “but there’s more to it than that.”

“It’s the whole body of work. It’s you as a person, what kind of legacy you want to leave,” he added. “I really think he understands that now.”

Cowher coached Roethlisberger during the quarterback’s first three seasons— in Year 2, he became the youngest at the position to win a Super Bowl. Roethlisberger picked up another ring under Mike Tomlin after Cowher retired, only to put his stellar career in jeopardy.

Roethlisberger was not charged after a Georgia college student accused him of sexual assault, but commissioner Roger Goodell still suspended him for the first six games of the season, citing a “pattern of behavior” embarrassing to the NFL.

Roethlisberger has said Cowher was one of the people he turned to for advice as he tried to get his life back on track, and that the two are now closer than ever before.

“Just like with your children, sometimes when you say things to them: ‘Yeah, right.’ They have all the answers,” Cowher said. “All of a sudden, the older they get: ‘Maybe he’s right about that.’

“I think Ben has had a chance to reflect a lot. I think he’s a good person. While it’s unfortunate, I think it may be an eye-opener to him, kind of a slap in the face.”

Before the Georgia case, there were earlier incidents, too. Roethlisberger was badly injured in a motorcycle accident while riding without a helmet or a permit after his first Super Bowl victory in 2006. He also is being sued by a woman who says he raped her in 2008 at a Lake Tahoe hotel-casino. Roethlisberger denies the accusation and was not charged. He has claimed counter-damages in a lawsuit.

Some people mature later than others, Cowher said, and he believes Roethlisberger is a late bloomer.

“There’s no question as a player he’s always been a great player,” Cowher said. “But there’s a lot more to this professionally than that. It’s how you carry yourself off the field. I think he realizes that now. I really think you’re going to see a different person.”

Even without Roethlisberger to start the season, Cowher thinks his former team will be just fine because the coaches have time to prepare for the suspension, which could be reduced to four games.

“I know a lot of players on that team. They need to hear that they can’t do something,” Cowher said. “That always seems to be the impetus to say, ‘OK, we’ll show you.”’

Since Cowher retired after the 2006 season, the rest of the NFL has wondered whether he’ll show he can coach again. His name seems to come up whenever there is an opening, and Cowher isn’t going to quell that talk.

“I certainly will look into situations with open ears,” he said.

For now, he’s an analyst for CBS, which allows him to stay close to the game if he does choose to coach again—or lets him fulfill his football cravings without returning to the field. At the network’s NFL media day Tuesday, he said his new colleagues have become family, just like it was with the Steelers, and he’d only leave for an ideal situation.

“I’m not sitting there lobbying for any one team,” Cowher said. “You know what? I always thought, you’ll know. When the time comes, you’ll know. Right now the season’s starting, and my thoughts aren’t on coaching. My thoughts are on trying to give great coverage.”

The familiarity of football season offers comfort for Cowher, whose his wife, Kaye, died of skin cancer a month ago. Cowher said he never considered taking time off.

“As all our family’s doing right now, we’re all kind of moving on with our lives. It’s the way my wife would have wanted it,” he said. “I’m just very thankful for everybody in America who reached out, sent e-mails, texts, the donations they’ve made to a couple of charities. It’s been very heartfelt, very sincere. I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Polamalu gaining confidence in knee

By John Harris, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

He returns for his eighth NFL season, more cautiously than full of fire and brimstone. That's because Steelers safety Troy Polamalu still doesn't know what to expect from his balky left knee, although following the first two preseason games it's been so far, so good.

The worst thing that a football player can do is think too much. Football is all about instinct. Deep thinking is for college philosophy professors only.

Polamalu will be the first to tell you he has been thinking about missing 11 games last season because of a torn knee ligament, not having surgery and wondering and worrying if he can make it through 2010 intact.

"Maybe a little too much thinking," Polamalu said.

The Steelers' Troy Polamalu (top) and Bryant McFadden bring down New York's Steve Smith during the first quarter Saturday at New Meadowlands Stadium.
Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review


Polamalu's concerns have merit. New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush suffered the same injury and had microfracture surgery performed on his left knee after he was placed on injured reserve in December 2008. Bush's injury was initially reported as a sprained medical collateral ligament, which doesn't usually require surgery.

"In the back of your mind you always have those concerns," Polamalu said late Saturday night following the Steelers' preseason win over the New York Giants. "It wasn't in my consciousness at all as I was playing. That's a positive thing.

"I did feel better. I take some comfort in getting out there and moving the knee in different directions."

Polamalu played the preseason opener against Detroit on Heinz Field's grass surface. The second game was played on Field Turf at New Meadowlands Stadium.

"That was a nice hurdle to get over," Polamalu said of testing his knee on two different playing surfaces.

It's been clearing one hurdle at a time for Polamalu. One foot in front of the other. Little steps becoming big steps.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, recently inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a cornerback, said Polamalu's concerns are legitimate and understandable.

All players, LeBeau said, experience feelings of anxiety following a serious injury, no matter how famous and accomplished they are.

"I think that's natural," LeBeau said. "It's going to happen. Generally speaking, (after) a game or two, you don't even think about it anymore."

Three months ago, when I spoke with Polamalu at the Steelers mandatory minicamp, he used phrases like "career-ending" and said "I don't know what happens when we start tackling" when asked about the ramifications of injuring the same knee twice in 2009.

Polamalu was tackling, or at least giving it the old college try, against the Giants. He was back to flying around the ball and officially credited with four tackles, but is the first to admit he missed at least that many tackles and isn't close to being in top form.

"My knee felt good, but my focus isn't there right now," Polamalu said. "No question. We've got to work on our tackling."

When does he think he'll get back to playing more like the Polamalu of old?

"Hopefully with these next (two) preseason games, I can get everything working together," he said. "I've just got to get reps. I missed quite a bit of time last year.

"I wasn't seeing things very well (Saturday). Nothing was instinctive for me. That just comes with time, and that's what these preseason games are good for."

After what Polamalu's knee has been through, just being back on the field is good enough for him right now.

Stat of the Week: Hines Ward

By Peter King
Monday Morning QB
August 23, 2010
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/

The 44 voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame are going to have a very interesting decision on our hands in seven or eight years. That's the case of Hines Ward, 34, who appears set to open the season as the Steelers' number one receiver again, with second-year man Mike Wallace on the other side to replace Santonio Holmes.

Both receivers who started for the Steelers glory teams, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, are in the Hall. Swann and Stallworth played on four Super Bowl winners. Ward has played on two. The most interesting stat comparing Swann, Stallworth and the charismatic Ward: In 12 seasons, Ward has caught more balls than Swann and Stallworth caught in a combined 23 seasons.

To be sure, the game's changed in the generation since Swann and Stallworth gained fame. In 1978, the Steelers passed on 39 percent of their offensive plays. In 2009, they passed on 58 percent. That's why judging players for the Hall of Fame has become such a divisive, difficult process. By the numbers and the championships, comparing Ward to past Steeler wideouts who made the Hall, he's deserving. But numbers haven't made the difference for Cris Carter and Tim Brown.

The comparison between Ward and his predecessors:

Player- Yrs. G Rec. Yards Yds/Rec TD

Ward- 12 186 895 10,947 12.2 78

Swann/Stallworth- 23 280 873 14,185 16.2 114

Ward told me the other day his "ultimate goal'' is to get to 1,000 career receptions. And if he had three times the catches of Swann, with the same number of Super Bowl MVPs (one) ... well, that's a pretty good case to make for Canton.

"Not bad,'' Ward said, "for a guy picked in the third round, with no ACL in one knee, picked as pretty much a special-teams player by a team that really didn't throw that much. I'm pretty amazed by it.''

I never judge a player with finality until his career is over. It bugs me when I read a guy in mid-career is a "future Hall of Famer.'' But Ward, to me, is one of the best total football players at any position I've ever covered. He has three edges over some of the big-number guys. Two championships. One of the best blocking wide receivers ever, though some will hold it against him that he's had a few dirty hits on defensive players in his career. And a leader of the highest degree, the way Michael Irvin was in Dallas. I think leadership helped Irvin. Irvin leads Ward in Super Bowl wins, 3-2. Ward leads in receptions, 895-750, and could make the edge daunting in the next couple of years.

I got an up-close glimpse of the leadership thing again last week in Latrobe, Pa., the longtime summer home of the Steelers. Craig Wolfley, one of the radio voices of the Steelers, saw it too, at practice one afternoon, watching Ward with the young receivers. "Hines runs the show here,'' Wolfley said. "They follow him like little ducklings.''

Interesting postscript from Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Ward played in his 40th stadium in his career Saturday night when he stepped onto the field at the new Meadowlands Stadium. That includes Morgantown, W. Va. (for a preseason game his rookie year), Mexico City and Toronto. His 41st, said Bouchette, would be the Cowboys new stadium -- if the Steelers reach the Super Bowl.



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Monday, August 23, 2010

Little things add up for Smith

Monday, August 23, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1

They say it's the little things that tell so much about a person ...

Just about everybody knows Aaron Smith is a terrific defensive end, the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL. "One of the greatest players in Steelers history," teammate Brett Keisel gushed last week. "The key to our defense," captain James Farrior added, aware that All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu and sack masters James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley also play on that unit.

But it's the little things ...


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Defensive end Aaron Smith sacks Giants quarterback Rhett Bomar Saturday at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.


When the Steelers played the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field Aug. 14, their exhibition game was delayed for 73 minutes by lightning late in the second quarter. By that time, Smith and the other starters were finished for the night, their work limited to two series. But when the teams prepared to resume play, there was Smith, warming up with the reserves, doing the stretching, doing the running, doing all of the drills.

"Those guys had to do it. Why shouldn't I?" Smith asked. Told that he was the only Steelers' starter to do the warm-ups, he shrugged. "That's just me."

Selfless.

A star who doesn't think he's any better than the team's second- and third-stringers.

That explains, as well as anything, why Smith is such a great player.

The physical tools are invaluable, sure. Smith is a massive man -- 6 feet 5, maybe 300 pounds. His run-stopping techniques are superb. "He's unblockable," Keisel said, still gushing. Smith's knowledge of the defense is second to none. "He never does anything bad out there," Farrior said. "The coaches never have to yell at him."

But Smith's low-key, low-maintenance personality also factors into his success.

Here's another of those little things ...

After working his way through a media scrum the other day, politely answering every question as always, Smith said in a quiet moment: "I don't like the attention. I don't mind doing the interviews. I just don't like the attention. I don't need it."

Smith plays the perfect position.

Polamalu, Harrison and Woodley get the rave reviews from fans and media because they make the spectacular plays. Smith, by comparison, is just sort of there, as far as many in the fans-and-media crowd are concerned. His job description isn't very sexy. Eat up blockers. Stop the run. Free up Harrison and Woodley to get the sacks and quarterback hurries.

"I put my ego aside and try to do what I'm supposed to do," Smith said. "It's all about winning for me. Winning games. Winning Super Bowls. We've won two. I'd like to get more. Can you ever have enough?"

There's no question Smith must stay healthy for this group of Steelers to have any chance of making it three Super Bowls in six years this season. He might be their most irreplaceable player after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It's no coincidence the team didn't make the playoffs after Smith missed the final 11 games last season with a torn rotator cuff. Or that it won Super Bowl XLIII after the '08 season when he played every game. Or that it lost three of its final four games in '07 and was bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Jacksonville Jaguars when he was out with a torn biceps muscle.

What isn't nearly so certain is that Smith will be able to stay healthy. He's 34. This is his 12th season. That's a lot of wear and tear on a man's body.

"Let's say, on average, there are 1,000 defensive snaps in a season," Smith said. "Over 10 years, that's 10,000 snaps. And that's not counting training camp and minicamp and the [organized team activities] ...

"You do this long enough, something is going to start to wear out. How many people tear their rotator cuff and have a biceps tear? That's probably from reaching to make tackles all those years.

"But, truthfully, I don't feel older. I go to practice every day and feel the same way I always have. I'm not worried about making it through this season. I'm really not. I'm going to keep playing as long as I feel this good."

Smith said he had "goose bumps" when he walked into the locker room at Heinz Field before that first exhibition game against Detroit. "It felt like it had been so long since I had been in there." Somehow, it just seemed right that he made the team's first tackle of the season in that game, stopping Lions running back Jahvid Best after a 3-yard gain. It also seemed right that Smith got the first-team defense's first sack of the year when he tackled New York Giants quarterback Rhett Bomar for an 8-yard loss Saturday night. "I'm just glad to be back out on the field," Smith said. "I love it."

That, too, says plenty about Smith.

"There's no reason for me to be playing now if I didn't still love the game," he said. "I've been paid well. We've won Super Bowls ...

"I do it because there's nothing like it. And when I'm done, there never will be anything like it again. I love being around the guys. I love the physical part of the game. I love the competition. I love all of it."

Clearly, these are good times for Smith. That he's healthy again and back playing football is the least of it. His son, Elijah, 6, who was diagnosed with leukemia in October 2008, continues to do well and is down to his final year-and-a-half of treatments. "He inspires me every day," Smith said. As if that isn't enough great news, Smith's wife, Jaimie, is expecting their fifth child in late-November. It should be some Thanksgiving at the Smith house.

Turns out it's not just the little things that define Smith.

The big things in his life are pretty important, too.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10235/1081975-87.stm#ixzz0xQJlgLyd

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pirates, Mexican ace faced long odds, long route

Special report: It was years in the making, from Heredia's challenging childhood to a determined group of scouts staving off wealthier suitors

Sunday, August 22, 2010
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1


Dejan Kovacevic/Post-Gazette

Luis Heredia on a residential hill high atop the heart of Mazatlan, Mexico.


MAZATLAN, Mexico -- Luis Heredia looks like a foreigner on his own field.

It is the fourth inning of a game between Mexico and South Korea, in an international tournament for 15-16 year-olds, played in his hometown, in front of 2,000 adoring fans, with school buddies among his teammates. But the fastball is being clocked at 93 mph -- breathtaking for Heredia's age -- and it snaps the poor catcher's mitt backward a full foot. The downward plane of his pitches, originating with his right hand high above the 6-foot-6 frame, confuses the amateur umpire, and few low strikes are called. Even the first baseman allows three pinpoint pickoff throws to elude him.

Heredia, now charged with three runs on one hit, is flipping the resin bag and kicking the rubber in frustration. His curveball goes flat, and the fastball command veers.

"The kid," Rene Gayo reminds, "just turned 16."

Gayo, the Pirates' Latin American scouting director, is seated behind home plate amid a dozen Major League Baseball scouts, all there to see Heredia. With each pitch, they raise their radar guns in unison, like a rifle squad.

Small wonder that, an hour before taking the mound, Heredia had said through a translator, "I want to do so well."

But he is not doing so well, and Gayo thinks he knows why.

"Just look at him," Gayo says. "This is a young man who, for years now, has been pitching to guys three or four years older than him. And dominating them. He's way beyond this."

As if to illustrate that, a few minutes later, Heredia freezes a diminutive South Korean batter with 93-mph heat on the outside corner for his final pitch. This time, the catcher bends without breaking, the umpire makes the right call, and the crowd stands and roars.

The player

That was 10 days ago. On Thursday, Gayo and the Pirates completed a pursuit rooted in a decade-long relationship by agreeing to terms with Heredia and the Mexican team that owned his professional rights on a $2.6 million bonus, largest by far for an international player in the Pirates' history.

And the next step will, indeed, be "way beyond" those four-plus innings against South Korea: He soon will report directly to rookie-level Bradenton of the Gulf Coast League, becoming the Pirates' first prospect in the past decade to bypass the Latin American levels.

Never mind that Heredia, again, will be 3-4 years younger than his peers.

"Oh, I'm happy about that," he says. "I always like that."

To understand why, rewind to one afternoon last summer, when Heredia was asked to accompany Venados de Mazatlan, the city's professional team in the Mexican Pacific League, for an exhibition in nearby Apoderado.

Heredia long had hung around Venados' clubhouse, picking up pointers from a roster that, in the winter months, has included major-leaguers such as the Pirates' Evan Meek and Neil Walker. But this would not be about pointers: Heredia was told he would pitch.

"We were so scared," recalls Maria de Jesus Orosco, Heredia's mother.

They had no idea.


Dejan Kovacevic/Post-Gazette

Luis Heredia pitches against South Korea in an international tournament Aug. 19 in Mazatlan.


Just before the first inning, Heredia was told to take the mound for Apoderado, not Mazatlan, and his challenge suddenly went from facing a bunch of aging amateurs to current professionals.

Gayo, seated behind the plate, made eye contact with the overgrown child on the mound, grinned and gave a thumbs-up.

"Should have seen him," Gayo says.

"I'm never scared when I'm pitching. For me, pitching is always fun," Heredia interjects before smiling a bit. "But I was maybe a little nervous."

It showed: He walked his first two batters. But, after a visit from the pitching coach and a grin-turned-glare from Gayo, he would pitch two scoreless innings with one hit. Once he knew he was done, he laughed as he returned to the Mazatlan dugout to warm embraces.

Statistics are scarce to support what makes Heredia special, as the Pirates have limited almost all of his pitching for the past few months to exhibitions.

Still, it takes only a glimpse.

Heredia's fastball sits consistently at 92 mph, with a ramp-up at 93 mph, which means he throws harder now at this fragile age than three-fifths of the Pirates' current rotation. And it appears to explode from the hand, with little buildup and very little visible effort.

Gayo compares the stuff to that of another player he once scouted as an amateur.

"Josh Beckett at the same age," Gayo says. "Same quality of pitches. Same potential. With Luis, he doesn't have one attribute that stands out. What makes him unusual is that he has so many attributes all in one pitcher."

Heredia also has natural movement on the fastball that surprisingly rides in on right-handers, in the mold of Mark Prior -- "Not always," he clarifies. "Just when I want" -- as well as high velocity for his curve and change, and he even flirts with a slider, though often discouraged that catchers are unable to handle it.

Six pitches?

Ben Badler, international editor for Baseball America, wrote that Heredia "was seen by several scouts as the top amateur pitcher on the international market this summer," though he also has quoted scouts as being skeptical of Heredia's offspeed stuff.

"He's the total package," Gayo says. "He's all that, plus command, plus character, plus he's not a nice guy when he takes the mound -- you don't want that -- plus he can grow."

No question about the latter: Heredia's 6-foot-6, 185-pound frame, although more coordinated than most who sprout so quickly -- that pickoff move to first is timed in an excellent 0.98 seconds -- has ample room to add strength, according to Ezequiel Mora, the personal trainer overseeing his daily workouts for a year under the Pirates' auspices.

"No, Luis is not strong at all," Mora says, laughing.

Those workouts mostly consisted of running along the beach or the outfield track at the stadium, light throwing and a game each Sunday. No weights were used, for protection of the arm.

Once that changes ...

"That's the amazing part," Mora continues. "Luis already can throw so hard just because of his delivery and his arm action. When his arm gets stronger, it will be something else."

"The fastball, right now, is what God gave him," Gayo says. "There will be more."

One area that already is strikingly advanced is Heredia's coordination. There is nothing awkward about his posture or walk off the field, and nothing even remotely amiss on the mound.

"I had an umpire tell me once he was shocked when he went to the mound once and saw how tall Luis was," Gayo says. "This was after a few innings."

Gayo often refers to Heredia as a "Martian," his playful way to describe a truly special prospect. The only other player Gayo has given such a label was Dominican shortstop Miguel Sano, who was courted just as feverishly by the Pirates last summer and ended up signing with the Minnesota Twins for $3.15 million.

"I'm in the business of finding dogs who play checkers," Gayo says. "When you find one, you don't ask why. You're just happy they can play checkers."

The person

"El Caballito," they call Heredia, in and around the stadium. As in "Little Horse." And he hates it.

He appreciates the sentiment, so he does not openly object. And, aside from that, it takes quite a bit to keep this easygoing yet outgoing individual from smiling on just about any topic. But the nickname is a direct offshoot of "El Caballo," which they once called Hector Heredia. And Luis most assuredly does not consider himself a direct offshoot, no matter the bloodlines.


Dejan Kovacevic/Post-Gazette

Luis Heredia, right, with his mother, Maria de Jesus Orosco


Maria gave birth to Luis after she and Hector -- a lifelong minor league pitcher who played as high as the Class AAA levels in the Los Angeles and Houston systems until 1990 -- conceived the child out of wedlock, and Luis has remained without a father ever since. The family says Hector never contacted them until December, when, as they skeptically view it, Luis was on the verge of making money -- and he never sent financial support. When Luis finally met Hector that month, according to those close to him, he was unmoved.

"It meant nothing to Luis," Maria says.

Luis, showing his age when the topic is raised, turns to his mother, puts his hand on her shoulder and says, "I've always thought of you as my mother and father."

Mazatlan, on the west coast of Mexico's mainland and a two-hour flight south of Phoenix, is home to 400,000 and it is as diverse as can be: There is the country's largest commercial port, a bustling business district, a quaint colonial neighborhood, upscale housing in the rolling hills for the rich, a string of beachfront hotels for the American tourists, and there are the poor.

Luis was raised in the family's one-story, cement house in one of the poorest sections. Maria worked while raising Luis and his younger sister, and the family had help with money mailed from Maria's sister, a resident of Florida.

"There were times when it was difficult being a single mother," Maria says, fluent in English. "But we made it, and Luis did, too. When he had to go to play in California in the Pony League in 2008, we had to pay, and we found a way. Our family has one big heart."

Getting by was only a small part of the challenge in Luis' life. Many children in the blocks around his house get early starts in being involved in Mexico's epidemic of drug sales and use, as well as related gang activity. Most of those who would sell would at least use.

"Not Luis," Maria says. "Some of his friends were drinking and smoking, but Luis never got into any kind of trouble."

The family credits Luis with admonishing a relative about excessive drinking. When Luis was 14.

"I'm just very proud to have a family like this," Luis says. "They mean everything to me."

Maria credits her father -- Luis' grandfather -- as helping to fill the paternal role, but much of that fell the past few years to Jesus "Chino" Valdez, the Pirates' Mexican scouting supervisor and a lifelong Mazatlan resident.

Valdez has known Luis since he was 5, and Luis spent nearly as much time at the Valdez house in recent years as his own. Valdez's son, Jesus Jr., was Luis' catcher for a spell, and the two are close friends.

"Like my second family," Luis says, crossing himself.

Chino was the father figure long before turning more serious in the scouting capacity -- "Luis got really big when he was 13, and everybody noticed he could be great," Chino says -- but he invariably talks about the person more than the player.

"We talk in baseball about character, maturity," Chino says. "This young man grew up a long time ago."

The process

In the "Wild, Wild West" world of chasing international free agents -- only players in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico are eligible for the draft, and everyone else is fair game at age 16 -- prospects often get hidden by the first team that spots a talent. Either that, or the team essentially dictates all the player's activities, decides when and where he pitches, even tells him what to say, often simply to distract or deceive other teams that might be interested.

If the Pirates are hiding Heredia on the afternoon of this tournament game against South Korea, they are doing a really lousy job of it.

Valdez drives a buggy akin to a glorified golf cart -- common in Mazatlan -- that he recently had painted in pure Pittsburgh black and gold, with Pirates decals all around. He and Gayo are chauffeuring Heredia to the game, honking, laughing and waving as they pass acquaintances at the many sidewalk eateries. Heredia waves, too, while sporting a Pirates cap.

Subtle.


Dejan Kovacevic/Post-Gazette

Jesus "Chino" Valdez, the Pirates' Mexican scouting supervisor, is easy to find driving the streets of his native Mazatlan in his custom car.


Once inside Estadico Teodoro Mariscal, Heredia sets off to join his teammates, and Valdez and Gayo -- the former served as the Mazatlan club's general manager for years, Gayo as his assistant -- make themselves at home in the last row of seats behind home plate. Right where the parade of scouts soon would begin, all having to pass that spot.

Up the steps comes Oakland's Grady Fuson, one of baseball's most respected scouts.

"Hi, Grady," Gayo says.

Fuson nods. Both men know that, earlier in the day, the Athletics spoke with Heredia's mother. Maria was unmoved.

Next come the Yankees, who, according to word that day, have tried to get to Heredia through his father. That was not about to work.

Many others follow -- all have spoken to Heredia -- some of whom have tried and tried but never made a personal connection.

Gayo is not 100 percent certain he will get Heredia. As he would confess that evening, "I just want this to be over with." That sentiment arises from recent history, Gayo still blaming himself for the Pirates' failure to get Sano, a prospect he still calls "the best I've ever seen." Earlier on this day, he welled up when the Sano topic arose.

In front of Gayo's peers, though, it is all poker-face. A couple of scouts step up to congratulate him for signing Heredia, having heard a morning radio report that Maria said, "My son will sign with the Pirates." Gayo denies it -- "Congratulations for what?" -- and he has backing: Two days earlier, the Mexican League declared that no team could make a formal offer to Veracruz for Heredia until this past Thursday, affording major league teams the chance to first focus on the Monday deadline to sign draft picks.

Gayo still speaks confidently, even if he does not consistently sound it, and he points to the way the Pirates arranged Heredia's signing with Veracruz Jan. 1: The Rangers had tried it first, but Heredia insisted on sticking with "Chino."

That worked nicely for Gayo, who has had a 20-year relationship with Jose Antonio Mansur, owner of Veracruz. Mansur knew at the time he signed Heredia that the youngster never would pitch for that club -- a player has to be 16 to go pro in Mexico, and his rights surely would be sold -- but Mansur also knew that Veracruz could be in for quite the payday. In Mexico, the club keeps 75 percent of the bonus.

Gayo and Mansur discussed the Pirates' intent that day and stayed in constant contact. By the final month, Mansur was taking calls about Heredia only from Gayo, leaving a lieutenant for the rest.

Money would be an issue, as friendship alone was not going to satisfy Mansur. But Gayo sought and received approval from Pittsburgh for an allotment that would double his standard $3 million international budget, authorized by general manager Neal Huntington and team president Frank Coonelly, with owner Bob Nutting notified.

Kyle Stark, director of player development, flew to Mexico to watch Heredia pitch earlier this summer, and the team's view strengthened.

So did the relationship, with Valdez now spending "about 80 percent of my work" on Heredia, and Gayo similarly locked in even though he had to oversee the rest of the Pirates' annual July 2 international class.

One American League team complained informally to MLB that the Pirates were hiding Heredia, even though rules are vague in that area. Gayo hotly denies it while watching Heredia pitch.

"I'm not hiding him," Gayo says, motioning to the mound. "There he is."

As if to bolster the point, Gayo and Valdez leave the stadium right after Heredia is done, with the game still going, fully aware some of the scouts will try to talk to Heredia and family afterward. Gayo entrusts a relative to drive Heredia home.

Heredia allows that the scene is "pretty nervous for me sometimes," but adds with a smile, "Maybe it's a little fun, too. With Chino and Rene, everything is fun. And you know they mean what they say."

The mother expresses the same sentiment.

"So many of these scouts, they talk in a way you can't trust them. Chino and Rene, you just know."

As much as the Pirates held the upper hand throughout this process, there also are occasions where Gayo and his men are in the reverse role, scouting in stadiums knowing full well someone else is going to get the player. Or, in the case of Sano, a sudden change undoes years of work.

In the end, with the agreement reached almost immediately Thursday morning, all that was required was a call from Gayo to Mansur, a physical for Heredia -- whisked in and out of Pittsburgh -- and a signed agreement.

In the early hours after that agreement, Gayo exclaimed in a text message, "Pittsburgh Pirates WIN and get 'El Mariachi,' the best pitcher in Latin America for 2010!"

"El Mariachi?" After the joyous Mexican music that can be heard all across the streets of Mazatlan?

That is the new nickname Gayo is trying to make stick, and he will back it with a mariachi band for the formal signing ceremony Tuesday at a Mazatlan port.

Heredia will be chauffered in that buggy.

"He's a happy kid, and he's going to make a lot of people in Pittsburgh happy someday," Gayo explains. "He deserves a nickname he likes."


Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com.

Read more:
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10234/1081817-63.stm#ixzz0xNvx6GAf

Can Russell possibly survive?

By Joe Starkey, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Sunday, August 22, 2010

John Russell is the worst manager in baseball history.

OK, that's a bit harsh. Russell isn't the worst manager of all-time. He's the eighth-worst. You can look it up. His sickly .380 winning percentage is topped — bottomed, rather — by only seven men who have managed at least 320 games.

Those men worked a long time ago, too. Only one is living. They managed teams such as the Boston Beaneaters, the Louisville Colonels, the St. Louis Browns, the expansion Washington Senators and the expansion Toronto Blue Jays.

Do you think the Beaneaters had bobblehead nights?

Russell recently pushed past Alan Trammell into the bottom 10 and continues to sink fast. He lugged a horrific 169-276 record into Saturday night's game against the New York Mets.

Yes, 107 games below .500.

That kind of prodigious losing over a number of years — no matter the circumstances — is not tolerated in professional sports and almost always costs a manager/head coach his job.

Fair or not, that's a fact, and it leads to a question: Can Russell possibly survive to manage a fourth season?

These being the Pirates, anything is possible. For all we know, they've signed Russell to a 10-year extension and given him an ownership stake in the club — and will release the news sometime in 2014.

Remember, this is the same franchise that was so proud of extending Russell's contract (by a single year) last October that it didn't tell anyone for eight months and did so only under media pressure. Team president Frank Coonelly confirmed the extension the night after a six-error loss in the midst of a 10-game losing streak.

There was no champagne.

Coonelly continues to express lukewarm support for Russell, as he did Friday, but is quick to remind the public that every job is open for review and that the Pirates are willing to eat salaries if need be.

I'm still trying to figure out how a manager who apparently did not have the power to fill out his lineup card the way he wanted early in the season later gained enough authority to fire his pitching coach and bench coach.

So the story went, anyhow — that it was Russell's call to fire Joe Kerrigan and Gary Varsho.

These being the Pirates, who knows?

We do know this:

• Each of Russell's three teams have finished last in the NL Central (yeah, I'm including this one).

• This club, 40-82 going into last night's game, could still lose 110 games. Merely losing 105 would out-do all but two teams in franchise history.

Four months ago, this column called for an extension of Russell's contract, reasoning that no one could do better given the dearth of talent and that confident franchises stick by their hires through thick and thin.

That was before the revelation that Russell had been secretly extended, before the losing became downright historical and before his blunders multiplied.

Just two nights ago, Russell allowed long reliever Sean Gallagher to bat in the fourth inning with two outs and the Pirates trailing, 7-2, with runners on second and third. He should have sent Gallagher to the plate with a white flag instead of a bat.

We could argue whether Russell is a good teacher or an adept handler of pitching staffs. It doesn't matter anymore. Professional sports is a bottom-line business, and even if you believe those above Russell have given him no chance, he has to be accountable to his record.

Before the season, I asked Russell to fill in the blank, based on the Pirates' promotional ad, "It's time."

Time for what?

"Time to win," he said.

Six months later, it's time for a new manager.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Steelers great Butler has yet to enter Hall of Fame

By Carl Prine, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Saturday, August 21, 2010

With Pittsburgh Steelers defensive guru Dick LeBeau now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Jack Butler's supporters are redoubling efforts to get the cornerback into Canton.

Long considered one of the National Football League's greatest defensive backs, Butler, 82, also helmed the groundbreaking BLESTO scouting service. But sportswriters and the Hall of Fame's Seniors Committee continue to punt his selection.

Jack Butler starred for the Steelers as a defensive back in the 1950s, notching 52 career interceptions, and later ran a national pro scouting service for 44 years. A movement is now underway to get Butler inducted into the Hall of Fame, but Butler said it doesn't matter to him whether he gets in. "I'm just glad that I contributed," he said. "I'm very proud of playing in the league and giving back afterward, but I don't dwell on the other stuff."
Sidney Davis Tribune-Review


"When he was a player, Jack played for a very bad team. Had he played for the Lions or the Browns, he would've already been in the Hall of Fame, no questions asked," said Steelers vice president and minority owner Art Rooney Jr.

"We had all the greats from later teams get in, so people said there were too many Steelers. But this has penalized L.C. Greenwood, Andy Russell and Jack Butler. They should be in the Hall of Fame, too, but Jack was one of the greatest players to ever play the game and that means something special."

A native of Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood, Butler was raised in Whitehall. Attending seminary prep school in Canada, he never played high school football. When he gave up on becoming a priest, he made the roster at New York's St. Bonaventure University.

He joined the Steelers' camp as an undrafted free agent in 1951, a scrawny kid on the single wing. The last guy to make the team, Butler became an undersized third-string defensive end. Early in his rookie season, however, injuries in the secondary made him a cornerback.

"I'd never really played defensive back before," Butler said. "But I gave it my all."

At the end of a stellar season, franchise founder Art Rooney Sr. paid him a $500 bonus. For the following eight years, Butler starred for a team that produced only two winning campaigns. And he toiled offseasons as an electrician's handyman, a Vandergrift mill worker and a ranchhand on The Chief's horse farm.

"I sure didn't get rich playing football," Butler said.

For the past two years, Greensburg's Jeffrey W. Weber, an MSA Sports Network executive, has forwarded a breakdown of Butler's career statistics to Hall voters: 52 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. According to Weber's analysis, Butler did it by averaging a pick every eight passes attempted against him.

Butler's 827 return yards off interceptions tops all other Steelers, including Mel Blount and Rod Woodson. He's the only defensive back of the NFL's 1950s All-Decade Team not in Canton.

"Teams didn't throw as often back then, but when they did, they faced no tougher challenge than Jack Butler," Weber said. "He was a clean player. He hit hard, but he was fair. He was the best player on what charitably might be called a 'mediocre' team. Had he not been injured in 1959, he would've set records that would've taken years to break."

Butler's career stats mirror Detroit's Jack Christiansen, who was inducted into the Hall in 1970. Drafted a year after Christiansen retired, LeBeau in 1959 took up his mantle as a lockdown Lion. He's a fan of Butler, too.

"He's one of the best in the Steelers franchise, and you're talking about some pretty great players there," said LeBeau.

When he rolls up his trousers, Butler's knee looks like a drumstick twisted into a white knot, the aftermath of a 1959 injury that ended his career. The following season found him hobbling on crutches — hired by the Buffalo Bills as a coach, but unable to withstand the pain of working out with players.

Needing to support wife Bernadette and a Munhall family that grew to eight children, Butler scouted Steelers competitors. In 1963, he caught on at LESTO — short for the Lions, Eagles, Steelers Talent Organization — a pooled scouting service that rated pro prospects nationwide. It later became BLESTO when the Chicago Bears joined, then BLESTO-V with the Minnesota Vikings.

Today, it's just BLESTO, and it represents the Steelers, Bills, Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Lions, Vikings and New York Giants. It competes with The National, serving 18 franchises, and all the teams that do their own scouting.

Butler ran BLESTO for 44 years, retiring in 2007. Art Rooney Jr., former Steelers coach Chuck Noll and Butler's BLESTO sculpted the dominant gridiron dynasty of the 1970s, and it became a breeding ground for top NFL scouts, many of whom later rose to become personnel directors, such as the Steelers' Kevin Colbert.

Butler already has shipped scouting appraisals of tens of thousands of college prospects to Canton. They're just waiting for the man who signed off on them, often using increasingly sophisticated stats, software programs, stopwatches and strength tests to rate potential. BLESTO and other services also founded the Indianapolis pre-draft combine that has become a collegiate rite of passage.

"We were looking at the archetypal player," Butler said. "If you were looking at the best possible combination of speed, power, intelligence and other qualities at each position, what would it all look like? So we set it up like that, ranking prospects from the 'ideal' to less impressive. We wanted teams to see what the standards should be for a player to be successful in the NFL.

"But we also knew that you can't always judge a book by the cover. Sometimes, we would find a player who didn't look on paper like he would be a great player, but there was just something about him that came out when he played in a game. Then I would simply say, 'This guy can play football.' "

In BLESTO's early years, scouts confronted an NFL desegregating in fits and starts. Butler refused to consider race in player evaluations. Instead, he divided the nation geographically and demanded scouts rate a prospect solely by ability.

"I only cared if they could play," said Butler. "The rest of the stuff wasn't important to me."

Including getting into Canton.

"I don't like to talk about myself like that," he said. "I don't care if I get in or not. I'm just glad that I contributed. I'm very proud of playing in the league and giving back afterward, but I don't dwell on the other stuff."


The Butler Did It: Steelers of Glory Past

by maryrose on May 5, 2009 3:17 PM EDT
http://www.behindthesteelcurtain.com/



Special thanks to former Steeler Jack Butler for taking time to chat with BTSC about the good ol' days. He was truly one of the great ones.

In October of 2008, Jack Butler was selected as one of the top 33 Pittsburgh Steelers of all-time. That should grab your attention right there. Butler was born in Pittsburgh and went to college at St. Bonaventure. Because St. Bonaventure has never been noted for being a football powerhouse (the school dropped the program a year after Butler graduated), Butler would have never played in the NFL except for one small matter. The Athletic Director at St. Bonaventure was a priest named Father Dan Rooney, brother of Steelers' owner Art Rooney. He signed as a free agent defensive back.

Butler played nine years for the Steelers, 1951-59, and was getting better with each passing year, until he blew out a knee in the middle of the 1959 season. In those days, the dark ages of sports medicine, a major knee problem was all she wrote. In his last two full seasons, Butler intercepted 19 passes, a remarkable number considering they only played 12 games a year. His playing career short but brilliant, Butler ended up with 52 interceptions. Up until and through his time, only two NFL players intercepted more passes than Butler - Emlen Tunnel and Dick Night Train Lane. When the decade of the '60s began, 50-plus career interceptions was a group that you could count on one hand with two fingers missing.

Butler had a game that you can only dream of on December 13, 1953 in our nation's capitol. While out-rushing and out passing the Washington Redskins all game, the Steelers trailed after three quarters, 13-0 (typical for the Steelers in those days). Getting lost in the score was the outstanding game Jack Bulter was having. He had intercepted the great Eddie LeBaron three times. Finally, in the fourth quarter, the Steelers put a touchdown on the board to at least avert the shutout. Late in the game, down 13-7, Butler capped the game of his life by picking off LeBaron a fourth time, an NFL record still never broken, and taking it to the house for an electrifying 14-13 Steelers victory.

Two years later, Butler vividly remembers a fellow Pittsburgh native by the name of Johnny Unitas.

"I remember him well," recalls Butler. "I was a defensive back who always wanted to be a receiver. After practices I enjoyed catching passes. Unitas wasn't even getting into practice (1955 preseason), so he wanted to throw the ball after practice. The first thing you noticed was how awkward he looked, but his passes were perfect. He knew exactly where to put the ball in relationship to a defender. I thought, 'my goodness, what a great arm,' but the coaches never saw him throw."

Butler will never forget the day Unitas was cut. The two were together. After an exhibition game at Forbes Field, they drove back to Olean, New York, where the Steelers trained.

"Johnny told me in the car, 'I think they are going to cut me,' lamented Butler. I told him they couldn't cut him since they never saw him throw. Johnny said, 'that's the problem. They won't give me a chance.' Anyhow, we get to Olean in time for dinner. After dinner we were walking to the dorm and Kies (Head Coach Walt Kiesling) tells Johnny he was cut. They sent him back home to Pittsburgh. I don't know why Kiesling made him drive all the way to Olean just to send him back home, but given the future ramifications of it all, I guess it was par for the course."

Though his injury ended his playing days, Butler's time in the NFL was still in its infancy. Prior to the early 1960s, scouting and drafting were crude practices that were often counterproductive and cost-ineffective. Scouts from several teams would often find themselves in the same little off-the-beaten-path town learning the same information. Sure enough, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers who spearheaded the NFL's very first scouting combine. It was in the early 60s and it was called LESTO, standing for Lions Eagles Steelers Talent Organization. The Bears jumped on board soon thereafter and the name became BLESTO. Today's world of televised combines and sophisticated pro days began in Downtown Pittsburgh under the leadership of Ken Stilley, a former Steelers assistant coach.

Butler, took over operations of BLESTO in 1963 and held the leadership post for 44 years, until his retirement in 2007. BLESTO still operates today for at least seven clubs, but it is certainly no longer the only talent evaluation organization of its kind. Of all the things Jack Butler could be proud of, creating the first combine is at the top.

"We actually started the first combine in the NFL in the early 60s," claimed Butler. "It wasn't known to the public, but it was a huge development in the league. At first we brought in college seniors for physicals, because the rules wouldn't allow us to test them. The NFL realized how ridiculous it was to arrange all these kids coming together and not taking advantage of the opportunity. So they took away the rule and allowed all the teams to partake in testing and review. That was the creation of the first combine."

If anyone is qualified to speak to the merits of the Rooney Family, it is Butler. He is still today a very close friend of Art Rooney Jr., who knew a little bit about scouting himself back in the day.

"The Rooneys have always had an uncanny knack for knowing just the right touch when it comes to relationships. The Chief would come to practices and come into the lockerroom and make you feel like he really cared about you. At the same time, he never got too close to compromise his responsibility as an owner. Dan was the same way. Some owners are meddlesome, some are too remote. The Rooneys understand the fine line and maintain the perfect distance."

Ask just about any Steelers old-timer to name one player from the organization who should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The answer you will hear most often is Jack Butler. The Hall of Fame has rigid guidelines, which explains why folks like Dick Hoak and Art Rooney Jr. don't fit into any standard mold. Butler is another one. I firmly believe he will someday have a bust in Canton, but I'm afraid he may not be around to see it. Someday the voters will realize that a 55-year career in the NFL, as both a spectaculer player and innovator, is the the reason why halls of fame exist

Twilight's warm glow Ward has milestones within his reach

Saturday, August 21, 2010
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1

Hines Ward will add another notch to a belt chock full of them, throw another statistical log onto his personal pile when the Steelers play at 7 p.m. today at the New York Giants.

New Meadowlands Stadium will become the 36th different NFL field in which Ward has appeared since he joined the Steelers in 1998, counting the preseason. Add non-NFL stadiums in preseason games at Canton, Ohio, Morgantown, W.Va., and Mexico City and it swells to 39.

"Those are a lot of stadiums," Ward noted as his 13th training camp with the Steelers drew to a close. "It's just a big honor. That was a little personal milestone, just to be able to play in this league for this long and to play in all the different stadiums, especially the NFC, where every four years we switch. There aren't many people who can say they played in every stadium."


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Hines Ward takes a break during the afternoon workouts at St Vincent college in Latrobe.


Here is another thing few can say: They caught 1,000 passes in the NFL.

Six receivers in NFL history have 1,000 pass receptions. Ward has 895, which ranks 12th all time. Of the 11 in front of him, only two played fewer than 13 seasons, Randy Moss (also entering his 13th) and Torry Holt, 11.

Ward needs 105 receptions to join one of the most exclusive clubs in the NFL. Logic would say it will not happen this season because he's 34 and his starting quarterback cannot play for at least the first four games of the season. But he did catch 95 passes last season when he was 33, tying his second-most productive season after his team-record 112 in 2002.

"Only six guys in history have caught 1,000 balls. What an amazing record that would be," Ward said.

Most things about Ward have been amazing since he entered the league as the Steelers second pick in the third round in 1998 (after they took Jeremy Staat in the second and Chris Conrad with their first third-round pick). He had no true position after playing quarterback, running back and receiver at Georgia and he was missing the ACL in his left knee.

Yet 12 years later, he can move up to No. 2 among those who have played the most games in Steelers history. He ranks fifth at 186 games and can surpass Donnie Shell (No. 2 with 201) this season to trail only Mike Webster's 220.

That is a record as near and dear to him as any, including leading the team in receptions in each of the past 10 seasons. He knows his career is drawing near an end but he's not ready to concede season No. 13 will be it. John Stallworth played 14 with the Steelers. Jerry Rice played 20, Tim Brown 17, Cris Carter, Isaac Bruce, Andre Reed and Art Monk all 16. And as Ward will be the first to tell you, he has never had the speed to lose a step.

He is not among the pretty-boy receivers; he's as physical a player as has come down the NFL receiver pike, playing on a team that preferred to run during most of his stay, playing most of the time in outdoor stadiums in the north and catching passes from nine different quarterbacks (not the luxury of, say, playing with Peyton Manning indoors your entire career). Yet he missed no games in the past two seasons and only six in his career, including 14 playoff games. The same cannot be said for many of those he has blocked.

"I did a lot of reflection last year," Ward said. "All these years and all this stuff. I've seen so many wide receivers, so many of them, and so talented and how I'm still here and they're not."

He has never had a major injury. He credits coaches Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin with easing his practice load. He no longer practices on Wednesdays and he has had an easy training camp.

"People always ask me how long do you want to play? I don't know, as long as I can continue to be productive. The way coach Tomlin has taken care of me, he's not going to grind me in training camp. I feel good. Actually, my weight's down, I'm more toned, more fit.

"Usually, when we break camp and we start to get back on the South Side and practice once a day and get back in the mix of things, it's lot easier for me to do that. As long as I'm still playing, it's year to year for me. I don't know when I'm going to retire. I still get enjoyment coming out here to practice. The way my mindset is, I can only play one way but then in the back of my mind I have to be smart, I know I have to stay healthy. I don't want to miss the first game. It's hard to play football the way I play or anybody plays and try not to get hurt. That's the whole mindset and dilemma you have."

Ward says he'll know when it's time.

"I don't want to play for any other team. Keep me here. If I'm still producing, let me go out there. If I'm not, I'll walk away. I won't hang on."


Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Hines Ward pulls in a pass next to Ike Taylor at training camp at Saint Vincent College.


He misses his buddy, cornerback Deshea Townsend, whom the Steelers did not re-sign and is now in the Colts' training camp. The two were drafted in '98 and were together 12 seasons. He also misses Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes after building rapport with each receiver but says the young receivers, starting with Mike Wallace, have rejuvenated him.

"It's a new age with the young guys. Mentally, they kept it fresh for me. There was a time it started to get monotonous and stuff. But with those young guys and seeing their development ..."

He has that goal of reaching 1,000 receptions and perhaps surpassing Mike Webster's 220 games played with the Steelers. There are two more goals he cherishes even more. While Giants Stadium is No. 39 on his list, he would like nothing better than to play in No. 40 at the end of this season.

"The Cowboys got their new stadium, I haven't played in that one. The Super Bowl is there," said the MVP of Super Bowl XL.

And one more.

"Maybe one day they'll say he was one of the greatest Steelers to ever wear the uniform and when it's all said and done and I can say I walked away and got everything I wanted."


For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com.